One of Britain’s, and indeed Europe’s, most numerous diesel locomotives, the Class 66 has become the face of nearly every freight operating rail company on the UK network, a simple, utilitarian design with an enormous, powerful engine. But with it’s popularity among rail companies came a price, as it is often listed as one of the most hated locomotives ever to hit the UK rails, largely because of the slew of older BR classic locomotives it replaced from the late 1990’s onward.
But is it really deserving of such a bum rap?
By the mid-1990’s it was apparent that a majority of the ex-British Rail locomotives were well beyond their bloom of youth. Aside from the Class 58’s of 1983, the Class 60’s of 1989, and the American built Class 59’s of 1985, most locomotives in the service of freight companies were coming up to 30 or 40 years old, and reliability was a major issue. Years of under-investment in the BR freight sector Railfreight
Distribution, had resulted in a fleet comprised of decrepit diesels such as the Class 37’s and Class 47’s, being worked into the ground to keep the company rolling. Although the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 was a catalyst to investments for freight trains working those particular trunk routes to the South East, with the construction of the Class 92’s and the refurbishment of Wembley based Class 47’s, the remainder of the freight operators, by this time led by shadow franchises Loadhaul, Transrail and Mainline, were left with a fleet that was slowly dying before their eyes. Class 47’s, especially, needed a major overhaul every seven years, costing £400,000; yet had an average daily availability of less than 65% with only 16 days between major failures.
Enter Wisconsin Central, who, in 1996, bought the three franchises together with Railfreight Distribution and mail operator Rail Express Systems to create EWS, or English, Welsh & Scottish Railways. As part of the franchise commitment, the intention was to replace the ageing diesel fleet with a standard design that would reduce maintenance and operating costs substantially, with higher levels of reliability and efficiency. Looking at the fleet of diesels in general, it was noted that among the most reliable classes in the UK were the small fleet of 15 Class 59’s, built by General Motors between 1985 and 1995 for private Aggregate operators such as Foster Yeoman and Hanson, as well as energy company National Power for the haulage of their coal trains between Collieries and Power Stations. These engines were, for the most part, substantially younger than the likes of the Class 20’s, 31’s, 37’s and 47’s, and more reliable than the early built Class 56’s from Romania, which were infamous for their poor build quality.
Seeing their success, EWS placed an order in 1997 for 250 locomotives based on similar principles to that of the Class 59, often dubbed one of the biggest locomotive orders since the age of Steam. Locomotives were built at GM’s factory in London, Ontario, and
externally the bodyshell and design shared that with the Class 59. Internally though, the engines took many of GM’s previous developments and updated the engine and traction motors to enable higher speeds. The new locomotive was fitted with the 20 year old design of the EMD 710 12-cylinder diesel engine, found originally in the GP60 freight locomotives of North America. However, some of GM’s newer creations also made it into the mix, such as updated cab-control systems, the kind found in the Irish Railways Class 201 of 1994.
Originally designated Class 61, the first of these new locomotives arrived by boat at Immingham in June 1998, prior to proving tests at Derby. The locomotives then shipped at a rate of 11 per month into the UK via Newport Docks, until the order was completed in December 2001. After unloading, EWS engineers then simply took off the tarpaulin, unblocked the suspension, and finally as each was shipped with water and fuel, hooked up the batteries, before starting the engine and handing the locomotive into service. Almost immediately, other UK freight operators took interest in the Class, and companies such as Freightliner, GB Railfreight and Direct Rail Services also placed orders.
Upon their introduction, reliability levels for EWS’s operations improved substantially. Each locomotive is specified and guaranteed to 95% availability, aiming for a minimum of 180 days mean time between failures. It is designed to cover 1·6million km between major rebuilds, equivalent to 18 years’ service, with each major rebuild costed at £200,000. But with their success came the sad reality that the much loved classes of yesteryear were going to be given the push, and this is where a majority of the Class 66’s unpopularity comes from. It could have been understood the replacement of the 40 year old Class 20’s, 31’s, 37’s and 47’s, as it was quite clear they were past their prime, the same could equally be said for some of the earlier Class 56’s of the late 1970’s. However, the line was stepped across with the withdrawal of the Class 58’s and Class 60’s, as the desire of EWS to have a standardised fleet, resulted in the removal of locomotives that
were nowhere near life-expired. The large-scale retirement of these extremely reliable and powerful locomotives that weren’t even 20 years old was seen as a travesty, and whilst some Class 60’s have seen a revival with other operators as of late, the Class 58’s are all but extinct, whilst many Class 60’s continue to languish in yards across the UK, mostly at Toton in the East Midlands.
Nevertheless, the class continued to grow over the years, and, upon the conclusion of Class 66 production in the UK in 2014, 446 of the class were eventually built. But we can’t forget also that the class has seen major success across Europe as well, with dozens of engines in operation in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, and Poland, with certification pending in the Czech Republic and Italy.
Today, a majority of the class is still in service with a variety of operators. DB Schenker, the successor to EWS, continues to operate the largest fleet of 249 locomotives. Freightliner operates 141, DRS operates 19, GBRf operates 72 and Colas Rail operates 5. Not all of the locomotives however remain with us, as three have been written off.
The first was 66521 on the 28th February, 2001, where after hitting a Land Rover that had fallen down an embankment from the M62 motorway, a southbound GNER InterCity 225 set led by lightweight Class 82 DVT, 82221, derailed and ran straight into the path of the oncoming Class 66 which was working a northbound coal train. With an estimated closing speed of 142mph, the DVT was obliterated
upon hitting the Class 66, and the freight locomotive was mangled and distorted as it was crushed between its loaded coal train behind and the passenger coaches in front. In the disaster, 10 people were killed, including 66521’s driver Stephen Dunn, although his instructor Andrew Hill, who was also riding in the cab, was able to survive. The locomotive however was for the most part destroyed, and scrapped later that year.
The second was on the 4th January, 2010 involving 66048, which derailed at Carrbridge in snowy weather. Coming down the Highland Mainline with a loaded container train, it passed a signal at danger and was derailed at trap points, subsequently falling down an embankment into trees and injuring the two crew members.
The third was on the 28th June 2012, where GBRf 66734 derailed at Loch Treig whilst working Alcan Tanks. The inability of recovery crews to access the highly remote and dangerous location resulted in the engine being cut-up on site.
Additionally, many Class 66’s have suffered low-speed collisions and derailments, either through faults in the track, driver error, or faults with the rolling stock.
However, despite the criticism, and often being dubbed as bland and utilitarian, the Class 66 is still a major part of the UK freight network, working behind the scenes without need of major attention so as to get the job done. Indeed it may find a home among rail enthusiasts, and perhaps one day it’ll be dubbed a classic like the Class 37’s and 47’s it replaced, but at the moment it’s the UK networks humble hero, plying its trade the best way it knows how.